Quick Shifts: Will free agents who signed early make more money?

Ralph Krueger explains how he tried to prepare his players on the Buffalo Sabres for how COVID-19 could affect the NHL.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Seven days without sports makes one weak.

1. With each passing day encroaches a sobering thought: We might already be living in the NHL off-season.

Big if true.

Perhaps especially for hockey’s restricted and unrestricted free agents who had been striding toward a talent-courting period that may not exist as we remember it and aiming for a financial windfall that could get curbed.

(With our whole reality up in the air, sports readers are asked to forgive the occasional foray into the hypothetical.)

Impending free agents might not only be robbed of a stretch run and/or playoff spotlight to showcase their worth but may also be faced with a flattened salary cap should the absence of a post-season cut into hockey-related revenue.

Contract negotiations often revolve around cap percentages, and general managers only have a finite amount to spend.

If your name is Taylor Hall, Braden Holtby, Jacob Markstrom, Tyson Barrie, Alex Pietrangelo or Torey Krug, this is a concerning development.

Same goes for soon-to-be RFAs like Max Domi, Anthony DeAngelo, Sam Reinhart and Tyler Bertuzzi.

Will bridge deals suddenly make more sense until the NHL’s economic outlook stabilizes?

In retrospect, you can’t help but think that the scheduled 2020 free agents who did agree to extensions in advance of COVID-19 and its inherent economic repercussions will look like winners in the long run.

Comparatively, they might fare better financially than their still-unsigned peers, both in term and dollars. Which would be some cruel irony and straight-up bad luck.

Here are some high-profile players who elected for security over holding out for July 1:

Nicklas Backstrom (five years at $9.2 million)

Chris Kreider (seven years at $6.5 million)

Jake Muzzin (four years at $5.65 million)

Jean-Gabriel Pageau (six years at $5 million)

Zack Kassian (four years at $3.2 million)

Thomas Chabot (eight years at $8 million)

Clayton Keller (eight years at $7.15 million)

Alex DeBrincat (three years at $6.4 million)

Darnell Nurse (two years at $5.6 million).

It will be fascinating to see how this group’s contracts stack up to those who waited.

2. Challenged with the task of highlighting the best Maple Leafs prospect no one is talking about, I was torn between two 2019 fourth-round centremen chosen nine picks apart.

I went with Russian Mikhail Abramov but wanted to highlight American Nick Abruzzese as well.

On Thursday, Abruzzese was crowned ECAC Hockey’s Rookie of the Year after leading all NCAA freshmen in scoring. By piling up 44 points (14 goals, 30 assists) in 31 games, the Slate Hill, N.Y., native topped New York Rangers defenceman Adam Fox (6-34-40 in 2016-17) as the most productive rookie under Harvard Crimson coach Ted Donato (2004-present).

Abruzzese’s 18 points with the man-advantage drove Harvard’s power play to the best in the NCAA (31.2 per cent). He has yet to sign an entry-level deal with the Leafs.

A comment Abruzzese made in the summer (watch below) feels especially timely today.

“One thing I always like to think about is something my Dad said, and that’s ‘Champions are made when no one’s watching,’ ” Abruzzese said. “When you’re alone and not in a crowd it’s, ‘What kind of work are you putting in? What kind of person are you being?’”

3. The most recent interview I’ve heard with Gary Bettman was Thursday on ESPN Radio’s Get Up!, during which the commissioner reiterated that the NHL, like the NBA, is “staying flexible” when it comes to when and how to restart play.

Awarding a Stanley Cup in July is entirely possible, but Bettman does not want 2019-20’s pause to subtract from the “normalcy” of 2020-21.

“We can go later than we’ve ever gone. ‘How late?’ is a good question,” said Bettman, who is keeping clubs updated and calm by sending daily memos on the situation.

Deputy commissioner Bill Daly assures that the league is equipped to maintain summer ice in playoff-bound markets like Dallas, Tampa and Vegas.

However, two factors must be met in order to save this season, per Bettman: (1) The remainder of 2019-20 must not impact a reasonable rollout of an 82-game 2020-21 campaign. And (2) the playoff format must have integrity.

“It has to be respectful of the well-over-100-year history of the Stanley Cup. And that’s something we’re very focused on,” Bettman asserted.

In other words, the NHL may try a unique or truncated playoff tournament, but it won’t be straight-up goofy.

4. The most common questions Bettman and the league receive from NHL players revolve around testing for COVID-19.

There is no plan, desire or purpose for mass-testing all NHLers. In fact, if you’re asymptomatic, a test for the virus won’t tell you anything.

5. Hockey Hall of Fame hockey player and medical student Hayley Wickenheiser announced she will be taking questions live on her personal Instagram account at 12 p.m. ET Saturday. Love the initiative to interact with fans.

6. We wonder what effect — if any — this interrupted and potentially cancelled NHL campaign will have on the league’s five interim coaches. Here are the records they are likely to finish with.

• Calgary’s Geoff Ward: 24-15-3

• New Jersey’s Alain Nasreddine: 19-16-8

• Dallas’s Rick Bowness: 20-13-5

• Minnesota’s Dean Evason: 8-4-0

• San Jose’s Bob Boughner: 15-19-3

“I feel good about it. I think that given a fair chance, that I’m the guy for this team,” Boughner told Sharks reporter Kevin Kurz of The Athletic on Thursday. “And I think [general manager Doug Wilson] believes that, from what I know. I don’t want to speak for him, but I’m planning on being back, I’m planning on putting a plan in place for next year, and trying to look forward.”

Ultimately, Boughner’s status — like Ward’s and Nasreddine’s and yours — is in a holding pattern. But the former Florida Panthers bench boss believes he helped change the culture in a lost season plagued with injuries, tweaking systems and encouraging the influx of young players.

“We worked hard on being a team that’s hard to play against. For the most part, we were. Regardless of the wins or losses, when we played those games with the systems that we worked on,” Boughner explained, “it’s given guys a little bit of excitement knowing that coming back, they bought [into] those systems and they know we can be successful with them.”

7. Among the myriad mini bummers that would be parcelled into a scrapped season is the excellent platform year Anthony Cirelli has provided the Cup-contending Tampa Bay Lightning.

Despite the Bolts’ ridiculous depth up front, the 22-year-old Cirelli rates only below No. 1 centre Brayden Point and reigning Hart Trophy champ Nikita Kucherov among forwards ice time (18:28).

Most impressive about this is the type of minutes Cirelli was logging. He leads all Tampa forwards and ranks fifth-overall among all NHL forwards in penalty-killing ice time per game (2:49) while seeing less than a minute per game on the power play.

Each one of the four forwards killing more penalties than Cirelli is over age 30.

That speaks not only to Cirelli’s maturity as a player but the rumblings that he should be among the candidates for the Selke Trophy.

Coach Jon Cooper believes the Selke is “a pay-your-dues kind of award” that seldom sees such a young forward scoop the hardware but anticipates Cirelli will be right in that conversation soon, just as twenty-somethings are increasingly making noise for the Hart, Vezina and Norris.

“It has become a little bit of a young stars’ league,” Cooper said.

That includes players on their first or second contracts excelling in the defensive arts. Defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk says Cirelli’s skating ability allows him to recover quickly, and his positioning on the backtrack reveals a maturity. But it’s the Etobicoke, Ont., native’s tenacity on loose pucks that stands out above all.

“His strength on his stick, the way he bears down on pucks in 50/50 battles is something that for a player at his age to be doing is pretty unbelievable stuff,” Shattenkirk said. “You know when he goes into that corner, nine times out of 10 he’s gonna come out of there that puck.”

At a $728,333 cap hit, Cirelli is one of the sport’s greatest bargains. To think the Lightning won’t get a Cup run out of him on his ELC — and with the salary cap unlikely to rise — is a shame.

8. Desperate times call for video games.

Friday night, the Golden Knights invited fans to a Twitch live stream of a simulated NHL 20 game versus the Red Wings. The club’s in-arena host, Big D, manned the Knights controller and Daren Millard handled play-by-play duties.

Tuesday will bring the first of several live-streamed Capitals simulations, as the contenders play out the rest of the regular schedule virtually. Washington faces the Blues in a match of the two most recent champs.

Monumental Sports Network and NBC Sports Washington are doing the same with the Wizards’ schedule, using their actual announcers and NBA 2K20.

“If the video-game version of Bradley Beal and Alex Ovechkin live up to their real-life counterparts, fans should be in for a fun experience,” NBCSW senior VP and general manager Damon Phillips said in a release.

We admire the creativity, but no amount of digitized bits can replace the real-life Ovi.

9. Jim Benning appeared on Vancouver’s Sportsnet 650 on Friday and said that Jacob Markstrom is fully recovered from his knee injury, has been skating and would be ready to go were the Canucks to play tonight.

The GM reiterated his intention to work out a contract extension with Markstrom, but it’s not worth going too far down the negotiation road without the clarity of a salary cap for 2020-21.

Sportsnet’s Starting Lineup
Jim Benning talks free agent signings, Markstrom's status, potentially resuming the season
March 20 2020

10. Each summer after the frenzy of free agency wears down, I keep a running list of the 10 best UFAs still floating out there, like a swimmer on an inflatable raft. Jason Pominville — he of the 1,000 games club — is still hanging out in the waves.

Not only has Pominville yet to officially retire, but he kept playing this season in an Amherst, N.Y., beer league, Performax.

Jason Pominville stats. (@BuffaloSports/Twitter)

When the above screenshot of his PP2 North stat line — a mellow 48 goals and 42 assists for 90 points in 17 games — made the rounds on social media, former teammates chided him with messages.

Pominville told Buffalo News reporter Lance Lysowski the numbers weren’t accurate.

“Those stats are legit, 100 per cent,” Sabres pal Kyle Okposo told the outlet. “I texted him about that. I told him to take it easy on the guys…. I was actually at the barbershop maybe a month ago and somebody walked in, we started talking about hockey, and they were like, ‘Yeah, I played against Pominville last night in men’s league, and he’s still got it.’ I just looked at him and said, ‘No [kidding], he’s still got it; he just played in the NHL last year!’”

11. Connor McDavid, Matthew Tkachuk, Blake Wheeler and Morgan Rielly are just a few of the Canadian-team stars who have been releasing social-distancing and hand-washing encouragement through their personal social media accounts. Great to see.

Also cool: Players like David Pastrnak and Zach Hyman offering to play video games with their fans to kill time.

Meanwhile, Mattias Ekholm (baby), Mikko Rantanen (dog) and P.K. Subban (world-famous fiancée) have turned their loved ones into home gym essentials:

12. I will say that less time spent at rinks — knotting kids’ skate laces, conducting interviews, trying to avoid penalties with my probably-too-aggressive beer-league forechecks — has given way to more time listening to music, my other passion.

I cued up Lil Uzi Vert’s long-awaited Eternal Awake album, and in the first hook of the first song, “Myron,” he prophetically spits: “Pull up extra icy, I’m not playing hockey.”

No one is, Lil Uzi Vert. No one is.

*Single tear.*

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